- On December 24, 1994, Air France Flight 8969 was set for a routine flight from Algiers to Paris.
- Instead, the passengers and crew spent three days as the hostages of Islamist extremists.
- They were freed in a raid that was caught on live TV and introduced France’s elite GIGN to the world.
The more than 230 passengers and crew aboard Air France Flight 8969 on December 24, 1994, were looking forward to a quick and uneventful flight from Algiers to Paris.
Before they took off, four men dressed as Algerian policemen boarded the plane for what appeared to be a routine check.
Three days later, on the tarmac in Marseille, the passengers were freed by a daring raid that was broadcast on live TV, displaying to the world the unique skills of France’s elite GIGN.
Air France 8969
In 1989, Algeria wasn’t the safest place for foreigners, especially the French. France had colonized Algeria in the early 19th century and hundreds of thousands of French settled there over the following decades.
In 1962, Algerians won independence from France after a brutal eight-year fight. Internal conflict increased afterward, and by 1989 Algeria was on the verge of war between the government and Islamist rebel groups.
Relations with France, however, seemed normal, and the passengers and crew of Air France 8969 weren’t expecting the four “police officers” to be terrorists set on hijacking the plane and killing everyone on board.
The four men were members of the Armed Islamic Group, a hardline anti-Algerian government group that wanted to establish an Islamic state in Algeria. They were armed with AK-47s, Uzi submachine guns, sidearms, grenades, and even sticks of dynamite.
They demanded the release of some of their comrades in Algerian prisons and to show their commitment they killed an Algerian police officer who happened to be a passenger on the flight.
Once French officials confirmed the hijacking, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group was put on standby for an immediate hostage-rescue attempt should the negotiations fail.
GIGN, as the group is known, is the French police’s elite counterterrorism unit, similar to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. It specializes in counterterrorism and hostage-rescue and has become well known for its responses to deadly terrorist attacks in France.
The Algerian government barred France from sending the GIGN to its territory, but the French commandos continued their planning and preparations, even using an Airbus A300 to get familiar with the layout of the hijacked plane.
The terrorists initially indicated that they would release the passengers and crew if their demands were met. But an agent inside the GIA reported to the Algerian government, and by extension to the French, that the hijackers’ true aim was a suicide attack on France.
On December 25, the terrorists released about 60 passengers, mostly women and children. But they then killed another passenger and threatened to shoot one every 30 minutes unless the aircraft was cleared for takeoff.
After much pressure from the French government, the Algerians let the plane depart to Marseille to refuel before heading to Paris. The GIGN operators were waiting.
The GIGN strikes
Once in Marseille, the terrorists demanded three times more fuel than necessary to reach Paris, indicating they had a much longer trip planned — or wanted to turn the plane into a firebomb.
GIGN operators disguised as airport personnel boarded the aircraft to provide food and clean the toilets, using the opportunity to scout the plane and verify that there were no explosives on the doors.
By the morning of December 26, the terrorists had grown agitated by French efforts to delay meeting their demands. They ordered the plane to taxi next to the control tower and began shooting at the negotiators there.
Three GIGN teams on staircars sped toward the plane. Assault team one would secure the cockpit while assault teams two and three took over the cabin.
Close-quarters-combat operations “inside an aircraft are pretty challenging,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider. “On the one hand, you don’t have any serious corners to clear, which is what gets a lot of people during room clearing. But on the other hand, you’ve got potential hostages all over the place.”
In preparation for a news conference aboard the aircraft — a ruse by the French police — the terrorists had placed most of the passengers in the back of the plane.
During hostage situations aboard planes, the hijackers will normally herd people to one part of the aircraft in order to better control them, but they may also spread them out to use them as human shields, the retired operator said.
The latter scenario is where good close-quarters-combat skills, target discretion, and trigger discipline “really shine,” the retired operator added.
Depending on operational needs, special-operations teams can find lots of ways into an aircraft — Delta Force has developed specialized equipment and techniques to go in through the roof, the former operator said. The GIGN operators forced their way in through the cabin door after their staircars reached the plane.
Their dramatic dash into the aircraft was captured on live TV. Once inside, a fierce firefight with the terrorists broke out around the cockpit. After 22 minutes of fighting, during which grenades and other explosives were detonated and 400 rounds were fired, the standoff was over.
All four terrorists were killed. Nine GIGN commandos were wounded. Three passengers had been killed prior to the raid, but none were killed during the gun battle, though 13 of them and three crew members were wounded. One of the pilots managed to open the cockpit window and jump to the tarmac, fracturing his leg upon landing.
The GIGN had made its name. “An aircraft-hijacking situation is where you tell the difference between a Tier 1 and any other SOF [special-operations forces] unit,” the retired Delta Force operator said.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.